Coroners play an important part in many crime novels – just how many, I discovered some years back, when I was asked to contribute an essay on coroners and medical examiners to the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Since I wrote that essay, there has been no let-up in the flow of stories featuring coroners – in fact, they seem increasingly to be taking centre stage.
Priscilla Masters has, for instance, created a likeable coroner, Martha Gunn, who features in one of her detective series. And a coroner called Ceri Hussain is one of the main characters in my latest Harry Devlin novel, Waterloo Sunset. When researching for that book, I received a great deal of help from the Liverpool City Coroner, Andre Rebello, and from a part-time coroner, Jean Harkin, and what I learned left me full of admiration for the work that good coroners do.
A recent big seller is M.R. Hall’s The Coroner, which introduces a new series character, Jenny Cooper. Matthew Hall proved to be an articulate panellist when we met at Crimefest recently. He is a former lawyer who has written extensively for television, and his experience is evident in the way he builds the suspense in a story which sees Jenny investigating the deaths of two young people, and finding that a conspiracy connects them.
Jenny has a history of depression, and I found this an extremely interesting aspect to the story, especially as I’ve known a number of friends suffer from this sometimes devastating condition. I have to say I didn’t find Jenny consistently sympathetic in the early chapters, and I certainly didn’t approve of her lying about her medical history in order to get the job – that isn’t something that any coroner should do, whatever the mitigating circumstances. But my reservations faded as the book wore on, and they didn’t stop me enjoying the accomplishment wit which Matthew fashioned the ingredients of the thriller, while paving the way for future entries in the Jenny Cooper series.